On November 5, 2017, a massive leak of financial documents referred to as the Paradise Papers was released to the public. The leak involves multiple jurisdictions and contains nearly 13.4 million confidential electronic documents relating to offshore investment. The Paradise Papers comes largely from Appleby, a law firm based in Bermuda, and from the corporate registries of 19 tax havens.
The Paradise Papers cover the period from 1950 to 2016 and involve over 120,000 people and companies across the world, including government officials, entertainment personalities and corporate giants. It also involves more than 3,000 Canadian individuals and corporations, which is five times more than the ones from the Panama Papers.
On November 3, 2017, just a few days prior to this new leak, the Canada Revenue Agency (the “CRA”) delivered a statement (document) to highlight its work to combat tax evasion and tax avoidance. The CRA stated having “currently more than 990 audits and more than 42 criminal investigations related to offshore underway”, 123 of which involve participants and facilitators named in the Panama Papers. In light of the recent Paradise Papers leak, the CRA already announced that it is reviewing the data and promised to take “appropriate action”.
Furthermore, as part of the CRA’s strategy to combat offshore tax evasion and aggressive tax planning, the CRA announced earlier this year that a revised voluntary disclosures program policy would be introduced in 2018. The proposed changes were initially supposed to be implemented on January 1, 2018, but the CRA is delaying the implementation until March 1, 2018. The formal keys changes confirmed by the CRA will :
- eliminate the « no-names » disclosure process;
- require payment of the estimated tax at the time of the application;
- cancel relief if it is subsequently discovered that the application was not complete due to a misrepresentation; and
- create a two tracks system by introducing a « General Program » for minor non-compliance and a « Limited Program » for major non-compliance with limited relief in certain circumstances;
Such circumstances could include, for example :
- Situations where large amounts of tax were avoided;
- Active efforts to avoid detection and the use of complex offshore structures;
- Multiple years of non-compliance;
- Disclosures motivated by CRA statements regarding its intended focus of compliance, by broad-based tax compliance programs or by the reception of leaked confidential information by the CRA such as the Paradise Papers data leak; and
- Other circumstances in which the CRA considers that there was a high degree of guilt in the taxpayer’s conduct contributing to his failure to comply.
Solicitor-client privilege is a constitutionally-entrenched right that protects communications between a lawyer and his or her client. The foundation of such privilege is to encourage full and frank disclosure between lawyers and their clients for the purpose of providing legal advice. A lawyer cannot be compelled to disclose information shared by his or her client and only the client can waive privilege. In the tax planning context, protecting the confidentiality of taxpayer information is important to ensure that a taxpayer’s tax position is not unfairly prejudiced by legal requirements to provide subjective analysis or information to taxing authorities where such analysis or information was communicated or created for purposes of providing tax advice. Further, to better ensure taxpayer compliance under a self-reporting tax system, the confidentiality of communications with one’s tax lawyer is protected to encourage full and complete disclosure of the facts necessary to provide tax advice.
A huge data leak from a Panama-based law firm has exposed billions in secret, offshore transactions involving multiple political leaders around the world and approximately 350 Canadians with offshore tax haven investments.
Previous leaks of offshore activities have led the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to engage in multiple tax audits targeting wealthy Canadians, such as clients of the LGT Bank, the Swiss HSBC Bank, and recently clients of one international accounting firm, just to name a few. This time should be no different. CRA was already instructed to get the leaked data in Panama Papers.
Many OECD-participating countries have engaged in a fight against tax evasion, treaty shopping and base erosion and profit-shifting (BEPS). Combined with the upcoming exchanges of financial information between countries starting in 2017 and 2018, Canada’s “new” offshore tax compliance section since 2013 and the offshore tax informant program (OTIP) rewarding whistleblowers, wealthy Canadians and businesses engaged in aggressive tax planning are more likely than ever to be audited.
In addition, the 2016 Federal budget proposed a plan to “improve tax compliance, prevent underground economic activity, tax evasion and aggressive tax planning,” requiring an investment of $444.4 million over five years to be used by the CRA for:
- hiring additional auditors and specialists
- developing robust business intelligence infrastructure
- increasing audit activities
- improving the quality of investigative work that targets criminal tax evaders
The expected additional revenue from such measures is $2.6 billion.
To most Canadians, these measures may sound perfectly legitimate. But many taxpayers in the province of Québec will hear a familiar tune that evokes unpleasant memories.
A GST/HST or income tax audit may result in an assessment that the taxpayer does not agree with. In this situation, it would be in the best interest of the taxpayer to object to a tax assessment by following these steps:
A tax audit on a specific subject can be short (an audit of the business promotional expenses and advertising) or if it is more general in nature, it can be longer (for example dealing with unreported income). During the audit stage, the taxpayer will be asked to provide documentary evidence, bank statements and explanations supporting his position in relation to the audited items. Many audits go well, however, some do not.
Generally, prior to the issuance of a notice of assessment following the audit, the auditor issues a draft assessment and invites the taxpayer to make representations prior to a predetermined date (usually 21 days). The taxpayer should take this opportunity to make representations explaining why he disagrees. It is preferable to make written representations and to submit any additional documents at this stage. It is wise to obtain professional assistance from an expert in the field to help with the representations during this period.
Following the representations on the draft assessment, it is possible that the Revenue agency (Quebec or Canada) will issue an assessment. Whether it is for income tax or GST/HST, this assessment carries interest at the prescribed rate starting on the day on the notice. Whether the taxpayer contests it or not, it is generally advisable to pay the amounts assessed in order to avoid an accumulation of interest. Furthermore, tax laws permit the imposition of costly penalties in certain circumstances, for example, gross negligence, which can form part of the assessment.